The Christian Roots of Freedom and Tolerance

For decades, many have been rightly concerned about the growing evidence that advanced Western societies are experiencing a process of moral breakdown and social fragmentation resulting in high levels of crime and anti-social behaviour. At the same time, our generation is confronted by a bewildering proliferation of alternative cultures and lifestyles – from Islamic fundamentalism and Eastern Religion, to New Age paganism, secular humanism, ‘gay liberation’, and most recently, ‘transgenderism’.

All this raises an all-important question: What is the proper moral and cultural foundation of a free and civilised society? What framework of values justifies and sustains liberty, and helps to ensure that it benefits the individual and the community?

The answer of secular liberal humanism, the dominant ideology of twenty-first century Western intellectuals, is a simple one. Since there is (allegedly) no convincing evidence that God exists, and the human race follows a wide variety of different religions and belief systems, it is obvious that there are no moral and cultural absolutes. It therefore follows that the only proper attitude to adopt is one of neutrality and tolerance. All creeds, cultures and moral codes are equal and should be treated as such. None should be regarded as being superior to the others, and the law should not discriminate between them. In particular, children should be educated as far as possible in a ‘value-free’ environment, so that their ‘freedom of choice’ as adults is not compromised by early ‘indoctrination’.

What is the proper moral and cultural foundation of a free and civilised society?

By contrast, belief in God and moral absolutes is typically regarded as bigoted and ‘authoritarian’, and therefore a threat to tolerance and freedom. This conviction is reinforced by the erroneous belief that religious faith in general, and Christianity in particular, has always been an obstacle to the advancement of liberty and science.

This dominant secular humanist outlook explains the hostility aroused by the ‘Religious Right’ in the United States, especially within the ‘liberal’ media, and helps to account for the general spread of political correctness within Western educational and cultural institutions. As a result, there is everywhere a frantic anxiety to flatter and appease – in the name of equality – every conceivable minority, except, of course, Christians and conservatives.

The inconsistency of humanistic ‘liberalism’ 

The glaring contrast between its commitment to ‘tolerance’ and its censorious attitude towards those who challenge its precepts, however, reveals the internal incoherence and inconsistency of humanistic ‘liberalism’. Even when its belief in choice and toleration is sincere, it is inconsistent with its other assumption that all values are relative. This is because if nothing is objectively right or wrong, tolerance becomes an arbitrary prejudice rather than a moral virtue, and its rejection by others cannot be logically condemned – a point to which I will return.

In reality, careful philosophical reasoning and close study of the historical record do not support the assumptions of secular humanism, even if one ignores its internal contradictions. They show, on the contrary, that the growth of liberty, the advancement of science, and the general progress of society, have been intimately linked with the development of Judaism and Christianity. Just as belief in a divine creator stimulated scientific discovery because it implied that nature was orderly and therefore open to systematic investigation, so, in a similar way, the belief that we are all God’s children, made in his image, paved the way for the eventual abolition of slavery and the recognition that all human beings have a right ‘to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’.[1]

the world of classical pagan antiquity was almost entirely hostile to the idea of liberty

The historical case for linking the growth of freedom with the development of Judaism and Christianity begins with the observation that the world of classical pagan antiquity was almost entirely hostile to the idea of liberty. With the rare exception of some Stoic philosophers, it had no conception of human rights, let alone respected them in practice. Not only was despotism practically universal, with political power concentrated in the hands of absolute monarchs, but slavery was an omnipresent institution whose raison d’être was not even questioned in the Athens of Pericles.

Ancient pagan hostility to the idea of liberty

The common view of pagan antiquity, expressed most clearly by Aristotle, was that slavery was justified because ‘from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule…some men are by nature free, and others slaves, and that for these latter slavery is both expedient and right’.[2] In addition to regarding more than half the human race as little more than animals, whose lives and persons belonged to their owners, the world of classical antiquity had no real concept of limited government. Instead, it was believed that the individual only existed to serve the State – whether that political community was a single city or an empire.

Some men are by nature free, and others slaves

- Aristotle

Hence, for instance, the failure of Athenian democracy to recognise or respect the rights of dissidents and minorities, demonstrated most famously in the trial, condemnation and death of Socrates. He was accused of corrupting the young people of Athens because he encouraged them to search for truth through a willingness to engage in critical thinking. Asking the kind of searching questions favoured by Socrates was considered to be a threat to the security of the Athenian state because it supposedly undermined the respect of the young for the authority of their elders.

This example underlines the point at issue with particular clarity. It shows that despite the existence of freedom of thought and speech, and the ability of Athenian citizens to participate as equals in the political process, there was no sense that individuals were special in themselves. They were not valued as children of God, unique creations of his love, with a right to life, liberty or property that imposed moral limits on the power of the State. The idea that rulers were subject to a higher law and ought to exercise power and authority in the interests of the governed, was propagated by some of the Stoics, but their ‘still small voice’ had no countervailing impact on the customs, mores and institutions of the ancient world.

The impact of biblical Christianity

Western civilisation only really began to accommodate and assimilate the ideal of liberty and equality before the law, as a result of the gradually unfolding impact of the biblical view of God and humanity. Pagan religion regarded humanity as the passive victim of amoral natural and supernatural forces that could only be appeased and controlled by elaborate rituals and sacrifices designed to win the favour of the ‘gods’. The Bible presented a radically different picture.

According to the biblical conception, there is only one God, and he is the eternal, self-existent creator of the universe. As such, he is the source of all life and consciousness, and the father of all mankind. In addition, says the Bible, God is the voice that speaks to our conscience and therefore the source of that moral law we find written on our hearts. This difference in theological perspective, compared with paganism, had dramatically contrasting consequences for politics and society. Of these consequences, two deserve special attention.

The notion that humans are made in God’s image means that every individual has God-given rights which may not be violated by the State

The first was the change that gradually took place in people’s attitude to the State and towards authority in general. Whereas paganism was saturated with the worship of power, encouraging its total concentration in the hands of one ruler, biblical Christianity emphasised the superiority of God’s law over all kings, princes and human authorities. It insisted that the possession of power and responsibility at any level was a sacred trust that should not be abused out of pride or vanity, or for personal gain. Secondly, biblical Christianity’s emphasis on the universal fatherhood of God powerfully reinforced the ideal – shared by some Stoic philosophers – of the brotherhood of man. Alongside this, the notion that every human being is made in God’s image introduced the idea that every individual is precious and has God-given rights which may not be violated by the State. Christianity’s additional stress on human weakness and sinfulness, and its affirmation that Christ died for the redemption of all, also suggested extra reasons for limiting and preventing the abuse of power.

The underlying logic of biblical Christianity has been libertarian in its political and social implications. Yet its pivotal role in the centuries-long struggle against torture, slavery, tyranny and inhumanity has often been obscured by the human failings of Christian statesmen, theologians, and denominations. In particular, Christians have added their own terrible contribution to the sum of human cruelty whenever they have fallen prey to the temptation to use the power of the State to coerce the consciences of individuals. All too often they have failed to respond to Jesus’ challenge to love their enemies and combat error with the spiritual weapons of prayer, argument and evangelism. Despite these failings, and their responsibility for Christendom’s ugly record of persecution and intolerance during the Middle Ages and the beginning of the modern era, no impartial historian can deny the biblical and Christian roots of freedom and liberal democracy.

To quote Lord Acton’s summary of the progress made during the Middle Ages:

Representative government, which was unknown to the ancients, was almost universal. The methods of election were crude; but the principle that no tax was lawful that was not granted by the class that paid – that is, that taxation was inseparable from representation – was recognised, not as the privilege of certain countries, but as the right of all…Slavery was almost everywhere extinct and absolute power was deemed more intolerable and more criminal than slavery. The right of insurrection was not only admitted but defined as a duty sanctioned by religion. [3]

In the subsequent centuries, the Protestant emphasis on the individual’s personal relationship with God and the right to read and interpret Scripture for oneself, coupled with the New Testament view of the Church as the ‘priesthood of all believers’, encouraged the gradual growth of freedom of conscience, as well as the advance of democracy in church and state. Most important of all is the Christian notion that humans are made in God’s image and therefore endowed with the gifts of reason and free will. This belief produced a powerful theological argument in favour of freedom of thought, worship and speech. If God himself gives us the freedom to choose whether to accept or reject him, neither the Church nor the State has the right to interfere with that freedom. This is a particularly vital insight, given the fact that both the pursuit of truth and the cultivation of virtue require that individuals be free to compare and discuss ideas and choose between good and evil.

The link between Christianity and liberty is perhaps most clearly discernible when one examines the political consequences in the twentieth century of the anti-Christian atheism of philosophers like Marx and Nietzsche, and their subsequent disciples: Lenin, Mussolini and Hitler.[4]

The consequences of denying objective morals

Denying the existence of God, these prophets and architects of totalitarianism explicitly rejected the idea that there is an objective and eternally valid moral law. They asserted instead that human beings must create their own values, and that the supreme manifestation of human freedom and significance lay in the ruthless conquest and uncontrolled exercise of power.

Like rebellious teenagers seeking to assert their importance and ‘personality’ by deliberately disregarding the wishes of their parents, these atheist thinkers and leaders argued that human autonomy could only be affirmed and demonstrated by the forceful exercise of the naked will, freed from the external restraint of traditional Judeo-Christian morality. The result? The Nazi and Communist holocausts and the increasingly murderous record of the State in the twentieth century.[5]

Our conviction that human life is valuable is meaningless unless we treat it as a self-evident truth reflecting an eternal reality outside ourselves

Despite the historical evidence, many deny the philosophical connection between atheism, nihilism and totalitarianism, on the grounds that the value of human life provides an objective foundation for morality without invoking the idea of God. What these critics fail to understand, however, is that it is impossible to justify our conviction that human life is valuable unless we treat it as a self-evident moral axiom reflecting an eternal (and therefore divine) reality outside ourselves. Otherwise it is nothing more than an emotional prejudice on a par with our liking for strawberries.

For all these reasons, those who cherish liberty and wish it to survive in the twenty-first century ought to resist the continuing erosion of the Judeo-Christian ethic and the spread of secular humanism.


[1] Readers who doubt these claims should consult the following books: Essays In The History of Liberty (Liberty Fund Books), by the great nineteenth-century liberal and Catholic historian, Lord Acton; Political Sermons of the American Founding Era: 1730–1805 (Liberty Fund Books); The Theme is Freedom: religion, politics and the American tradition (Regnery, USA), a wide-ranging and penetrating analysis of the religious foundations of Western liberty (complete with an exhaustive bibliography) by the late American Conservative writer and scholar, M. Stanton Evans.

[2] Aristotle, Politics, quoted in Stanton Evans, The Theme is Freedom, p.133.

[3] Lord Acton, ‘Freedom In Christianity’, History of Freedom and other Essays, (Books For Libraries Press, New York, 1967), p.39.

[4] For a full analysis of this issue see Stanton Evans, The Theme is Freedom, chapter 3.

[5] This is graphically documented in Professor R.J. Rummell’s landmark study, Death by Government.(Transaction Publishers, USA, 1996).

© Philip Vander Elst